The Story Behind Renée Fleming Donating Her Archives to Juilliard

By Greg Waxberg
(Credit: Evan Zimmerman)

At one time or another, artists face this question: what to do with the physical possessions accumulated during their careers, especially if they might be helpful to future generations? In soprano Renée Fleming’s case, she decided to call on The Juilliard School, where she received her postgraduate training.

“Most artists have a relationship with their alma mater or the city they’re from, and it makes sense to me to let them have these things,” she told OperaWire. “It was fantastic to know that an iconic arts education institution like Juilliard could keep and curate these items. I spoke with a couple of different institutions, but because New York is one of the greatest centers for the arts in the world, I thought it would be more convenient to those who might want to look at the material, and more convenient to me in case I needed to find something myself.”

Fleming also selected Juilliard because of what she calls the 115-year-old institution’s “state-of-the-art designated archive space.”

Thirty years ago, Juilliard developed a professional archives program, led by two full-time archivists—some materials are stored off-site, but most of the collection can be found in a climate-controlled space adjacent to the Lila Acheson Wallace Library’s reading room. Further, the school is selective about what it accepts.

“We make sure we have the staff resources to responsibly process collections and the space to house and preserve them,” Juilliard’s Vice President for Library and Information Resources, Jane Gottlieb noted. “We focus on people who have had the closest connections to Juilliard, and for whom it makes sense for us to house their archives—we are so honored to house Ms. Fleming’s collection.”

Her donation consisted of about 12 boxes’ worth of material, some of which had been displayed in her home or office, but most of which was sitting in files, closets, and other storage areas. The world of archiving consists of numerous minute details that are necessary for cataloging information and making it findable, so Juilliard has thoroughly documented the items for the library’s collection and stored them in acid-free folders inside acid-free boxes.

And there is the matter of digitization.

“We are very focused on digitization of rare materials, like press clippings or paper that’s in danger of disintegrating,” Gottlieb said. “We digitize as much material as we can and preserve the originals.”

Through Fleming’s efforts and those of her friends and fans, these mementos span the gamut: letters from conductors, mentors, fashion designers, and fans; awards; DVDs; VHS tapes; print and recorded interviews; photographs; portraits; and publicity posters (of the latter: “it feels odd to dispose of something like that, and it also feels odd to display it in your own home”). There are also “things I treasure for the memories they evoke, like the program insert from my [1991] Metropolitan Opera debut, announcing that I would be appearing as the Countess in ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ for Felicity Lott, who was ill that night.”

As her career continues, Fleming’s collection at Juilliard will expand. “At some point, my music scores will go there, but I’m still using those.”

How does she believe her archives might help those who want to learn more about her experiences as an artist?

“Depending on the person, I could imagine someone wanting to know about anything from the nuts and bolts of booking a tour, to what someone in South Africa shared about seeing their first live opera telecast from the MET. One would certainly get a sense of the hard work that goes into [a career] and get a sense of the breadth of my engagements.”

Ultimately, her donation plays a part in the art form’s legacy. “One of the great traditions of classical singing, a centuries-old art form, is the passing of knowledge and best practices from generation to generation,” Fleming pointed out. “Through mentoring, master classes, and now recorded performances, singers have long learned from those who went before us. I am a firm believer in preserving history.”

Juilliard’s archives are accessible to the public by appointment.


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